The Rev. George David Exoo and The Compassionate Chaplaincy Foundation

Revised August 30, 2010
In Search of Gentle Death: The Fight for Your Right to Die With Dignity, a modern history of the international right-to-die-movement by Richard N. Côté, will be published in 2011.

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The Rev. George David Exoo

The Rev. George David Exoo

The Rev. George David Exoo

The Rev. George David Exoo
career, and

The Rev. George David Exoo
education work

The Rev. George David Exoo
activist work

The Rev. George David Exoo
The Rosemary
Toole case

The Rev. George David Exoo
Prison life &
death threats

The Rev. George David Exoo
Rumor Mill

U.S. Judge Denies Ireland's Request to Extradite The Reverend George Exoo for "Assisting a Suicide"

On Friday, October 26, 2007, U.S. District Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort decreed that the United States would not extradite The Reverend George David Exoo. The sixty-five-year-old Harvard Divinity School graduate, an ordained Unitarian minister, human rights activist, and leading-edge trailblazer in the international Right-to-Die Movement, faced charges of "assisting a suicide" in Ireland. The judge found that neither federal nor a preponderance of U.S. state laws would support a conviction for any wrongdoing on Exoo's part. Since 2002 the case had drawn considerable international attention. If the complex, contradictory laws that governed the case had worked against him, Exoo would have become the first person to be extradited from any country on an "assisting a suicide" charge. Click here for VanDervort's official 32-page legal opinion.

George Exoo immediately after his release Exoo broke into tears of joy as the judge declared him a free man and immediately ordered him released from custody. His supporters in the audience gallery also wept with relief and jubilation and hugged each other, knowing that their four-month vigil of support could now end. If the complex, contradictory laws that governed the case had worked against him, Exoo would have become the first person to be extradited from any country on an assisted suicide charge. As soon as the judge finished reading a summary of his ruling, Exoo was immediately set free. After being released from his handcuffs and leg chains, he traded in his torn, orange prison jumpsuit, put on his blue blazer, grey slacks, black shoes, and clerical collar. "I was pleased by the judge's ruling,"Exoo said with a smile outside the courthouse. "That's about all I can say."

George Exoo offers his lunch to reporters Dr. Cassandra Mae, a friend of Exoo's who had flown in from North Carolina for the hearing, said she thought that Judge VanDervort's ruling showed good sense. "I'm absolutely thrilled that he is not going to an Irish prison," she stated, suspecting that his views on suicide would not be embraced in a largely Catholic country. "In my opinion, I don't think he did anything wrong. All he did was provide comfort." After offering his prison-issued brown-bag lunch -- a plain bologna sandwich, an orange, and cookies -- to reporters, he was driven off to a celebratory luncheon by his friends and members of his present and past congregations. Within eight hours after his release, supporters from fourteen countries had sent him over six hundred congratulatory emails.

Some time before his arrest seemed imminent, he informed his colleagues at an euthanasia conference that he would rather die than be extradicted to Ireland and be falsely convicted of assisting a suicide and face fourteen years imprisonment in an Irish jail.

The Ultimate Question

Many people have beloved friends or family members who are in unending, unendurable pain; trapped in a ruined body; terminally ill; or just old, fragile, and tired of life and want to make a swift, painless departure from this earth by their own hands, while they still have control of their lives. How would you respond to such a person's plea to help them have a peaceful death if they requested your presence?

The Reverend George Exoo has heard this plea many times and has responded with compassion. Exoo had traveled to Dublin in January 2002 to provide Rosemary Toole, then 48, with pastoral counseling, prayer, and to lend a compassionate presence as she ended her own life by her own hand by taking a massive overdose of sleeping pills mixed with alcohol and by inhaling helium gas. This method of suicide is explained in the international best-selling book, Final Exit, by Derek Humphry, founder of The Hemlock Society USA.

On June 24, 2004, the Dublin Metropolitan District Court issued a warrent for his arrest, stating that he had "aided and abettted" and "counseled" the suicide of Rosemary Toole. In Ireland, that offense is a felony offense carrying a maximum penalty of fourteen years in jail.

After three years of legal wrangling, federal agents, acting on the request of the Irish government, arrested Exoo at his home in Beckley, West Virginia on June 25, 2007. Although convicted of no crime, he spent the next 121 days in jail awaiting the judge's ruling on whether or not the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Ireland applied to him. His case was unique, because although assisting a suicide is a felony under Irish law, there is no equivalent federal law in the U.S., nor in Exoo's home state of West Virginia. Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip H. Wright, acting in behalf of the Irish government, argued that, if assisting a suicide is a felony in a majority of U.S. states, Exoo should be extradited--although he admitted that extradition for this charge had never been done before. "I haven't been able to find a case where they actually went to that stage," Wright stated. Wright's argument did not convince the judge, and Exoo is now a free man.

Exoo had always admitted being present as Toole took her own life, but stated unequivocally that he took no active role whatsoever in assisting or hastening her death. He emphasized that his actions consisted solely of counseling, compassion, and prayer. The Harvard Divinity School graduate noted that every year, thousands of ministers routinely provide compassionate spiritual presence and pray with dying people. "If comforting and praying with a dying person is either a sin or a crime, then most of the ministers, priests, and rabbis in America, Ireland, and the rest of the world must be sinners, criminals, or both," Exoo said.

Richard N. Côté, Exoo's volunteer media representative, friend, and colleague since 1979, and a ten-year member of Exoo's congregation while he served as minister of the Unitarian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, said that "George Exoo's vindication is proof positive that the governments of the world are finally starting to catch up with the will of the people: namely, to acknowledge that the right to die with dignity at the time of one's own choice is a fundamental, immutable human right, and not a privilege to be defined, granted, or denied by officials of either the church or the state."

After regaining his health, which suffered during his incarceration, Exoo has stated that he plans to renew his work to establish a hospice for those stricken by AIDS, a public service project upon which he had been working for during the ten years prior to his arrest. He also planned to immediately resume his parish ministry, and plans to lead services on Sunday, October 28 at his Universalist congregation in Lewisburg, West Virginia.

George Exoo's arrest
Upon his arrest, Exoo, who is 65, was taken to the Southern Regional Jail in nearby Beaver, West Virginia. There he was booked and jailed, pending a detention hearing on Friday, June 29, at the Federal Building in Beckley.

At the June 29 hearing, Exoo appeared before U.S. District Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort. The judge ordered Exoo held in jail pending the August extradition hearing. The judge added that he wanted to expedite the process as much as possible. Judge VanDervort expressed verbal appreciation for Exoo's supporters who were willing to offer property or money as bond for Exoo. Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and ankle cuffs, Exoo smiled gently and waved to his supporters during the hearing. He was defended by Edward E. Weis, an Assistant Federal Public Defender, in Charleston, West Virginia. Exoo described his attorney, a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, as "brilliant and caring."

Final Exit, 3rd edition, by Derek Humphry. At the August hearing, the judge was expected to rule whether or not Ireland could prove valid legal grounds for Exoo's extradition. Exoo said he conformed his actions to American law. It is not illegal in the United States to sit with people as they kill themselves as long as they obtained and administered their own means of death, according to The American Bar Association's Commission on Legal Problems of the Elderly.

Basic facts about euthanasia
The literal meaning of euthanasia is "good death." Legal euthanasia is supported by a majority of the people living in central and northern Europe and in the U.S. The majority of individual members of liberal American Christian denominations support euthanasia. American religious denominations that actively affirm the right to self-chosen death with dignity include The United Church of Christ (Congregational), the United Methodist Church (especially on the West coast of America), and the Unitarian-Universalist Association (U.U.A.). In 1989, at their annual General Assembly, the U.U.A. passed a resolution supporting the right to die with dignity. It affirmed that "human life has inherent dignity, which may be compromised when life is extended beyond the will or ability of a person to sustain that dignity." Many members of Exoo's former congregations quickly came to his aid, writing letters of reference and offering to help post his bond. Exoo remains active as a Unitarian minister and is eligible to serve any Unitarian, Universalist, or other congregation that might choose to call him.

Euthanasia is fiercely opposed by the Roman Catholic Church, and, to a somewahet less fervent extent, by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), and by many Protestant churches on the religious right. It is also opposed by some U.S. disability rights groups, who consider euthanasia a threat to those whose diminished capacity to communicate or financial limitations might make them particularly vulnerable to having their lives cut short. One such group, Not Dead Yet, has strongly condemned Exoo's actions and urged his extradition and trial in Ireland. Ironically, Exoo was a strong and vocal suporter of the rights of the disabled while a minister in Charleston, South Carolina.

Most people who choose to voluntarily end their lives through self-deliverance are terminally ill. All medical treatments acceptable to them have been exhausted, and their suffering is unbearable. Because their illnesses are terminal, they recognize their lives are drawing to a close. They choose self-deliverance in order to determine their time of death while they still control their own bodies, rather than taking the risk of having others needlessly preserve their lives (and pain) against their will, or being trapped in a helpless body, unable to control it or communicate through it. Others suffer from interminable, unbearable mental pain and anguish. There are four forms of hastening death:

  1. Passive euthanasia. This is popularly known as "pulling the plug." The most common form is the use of a written Durable Power of Attorney and/or Living Will, in which a person legally ensures that medical and hospital personnel and all close family members know that he or she wishes to die without benefit of the use of heroic measures. This method of passive euthanasia is not likely to provide legal or medical problems.
  2. Self-deliverance. In this method, someone takes his or her own life, without the direct help of any other person. However, a close friend or loved one should ideally be present to provide compassion and/or spiritual support. This is the method chosen by most people who end their own lives. The Reverend George Exoo supports this type of euthanasia.
  3. Assisted suicide. This procedure requires that a person obtain lethal drugs -- typically barbiturates -- from someone else, usually a physician, veterinarian, or friend -- and swallow the drugs in a massive overdose. Since these drugs are controlled substances under U.S. law, it is illegal for the provider to make them available without a prescription. Nevertheless, it is not all that difficult to secure them, and this form of suicide is generally painless. Most self-deliverances are carried out in some variation on this basic method. In recent years, a drug overdose, combined with inhaling helium, an inert gas, has become a preferred method, because of the ease of use and ready availability of the needed supplies.
  4. Active euthanasia. In this method, death results either from physician-prescribed lethal drugs that the patient ingests by him- or herself (as is now legal, under close supervision, in Oregon), or by a physician injecting lethal drugs (also under close scrutiny) in several European countries, including Holland and Switzerland. Passage of legislation legalizing physician-assisted-suicide is becoming progressively more popular in Europe, and pressure to adopt such laws in the U.S. is growing.

George Exoo biographical sketch
At various stages of his career, The Reverend George David Exoo has led the life of a Harvard Divinity School religious scholar, a college sociology professor, a Unitarian-Universalist parish minister, a vocal and energetically involved social activist, and an insightful reviewer of religious congregations nationwide. As the director of The Compassionate Chaplaincy Foundation, an officially recognized, federally registered nonprofit, charitable organization headquartered in Beckley, West Virginia, he has advised and given spiritual counseling to more than one hundred people who ended their lives with dignity at the times and places of their own choosing. As a result, he has become one of the most active members of the international Right-To-Die movement.

Youth and education
The Rev. George David Exoo Exoo was born in Ohio in 1942. His father's ancestors emigrated from Holland; his mother's, from Germany. He was brought up in the Methodist church. A bright, talented boy with a big grin, Exoo excelled in his studies, got along well with his classmates, and quickly learned to play the violin. This photo shows him at the age of five and a half. Exoo was valedictorian of his class and graduated magna cum laude from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1964, where he majored in English and social science. In 1966-1967, he was named a Hopkins Fellow, and in 1967 he received his S.T.B. (Bachelor of Sacred Theology) degree from Harvard Divinity School. At the Graduate Theological Union of the University of California at Berkeley, he pursued a Ph.D. in religion and society, with emphasis on the works of Ernst Troelltsch and Max Weber; religious experience; and law, morals, and the legal process. His doctoral dissertation was titled "Music as a Language of Spirituality in the War Years: Compositions of Ralph Vaughan Williams."

Career and ministry
After leaving Berkeley, Exoo became a professor of sociology on the faculty of Raymond College of the University of the Pacific, Stockton, California (1972-73), and later filled the same role at Washington and Jefferson College, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1973-1976). Exoo found academic life stimulating, but he felt a deeper need to become involved directly with the community. On January 4, 1974, he was ordained as a minister by the First Church, Boston, a member of the Unitarian-Universalist Association. Exoo remains an active Unitarian minister to this day.

The Unitarian Church, Charleston, South Carolina, 1977-1987 The fan tracery vaulting of the Unitarian Church in Charleston
In 1973, his interests in social action soon surfaced. In 1977, he was called to the historic pulpit of the
Unitarian Church of Charleston, South Carolina. Founded in 1772, it is the oldest Unitarian congregation in the South. Then as now, the church is an anachronism: a bastion of liberal, inclusive theology in a state known for its rock-ribbed conservative Christian orthodoxy. In Charleston, Exoo gained considerable attention on several fronts. His passion for musicology greatly enhanced the sophistication of the congregation's choir and organ repertoires. However, the aging congregation he inherited had a contentious past and a reputation for chewing up and quickly spitting out ministers. The congregation had not experienced any significant growth in many years. Exoo soon undertook a number of successful (and, to some, controversial) efforts to expand and diversify the membership base. These included organizing Charleston's first church-supported singles' group, known as "New Wine;" encouraging the development of a support group for gays and lesbians; and actively supporting civil and religious liberties. Exoo also served as chaplain/advisor to On Our Own, a group comprised of formerly hospitalized mental patients in Charleston.

Community service
Exoo's Charleston Police Chaplain badge, issued by Chief Reuben Greenberg In addition, Exoo successfully expanded interfaith ties among Charleston's Unitarian, Jewish, and African-American congregations. This work led to his being elected to two terms as president of The Charleston Ministerial Association, a racially mixed organization. Exoo also conducted an inter-racial pulpit exchange with the Reverend Frank Portee of Charleston's Centenary Methodist Church. That was the first such exchange in Charleston. Exoo served the city as an unpaid chaplain for the Charleston Police Department from 1982 to 1987, counseling police officers, their families, and victims of tragedy who were suffering trauma and personal loss. Exoo also actively lobbied for the 1985 passage in South Carolina of Living Will legislation and infant auto seat legislation.

AIDS activism
One of Exoo's most energetic campaigns has been a lifelong fight for AIDS education and prevention, in which he was an early, active, and highly vocal leader. He served as a media advocate for the AIDS Interfaith Ministry in South Carolina from 1989 to 1990; was chair of The AIDS Response Task Force Action Council in Columbia, South Carolina from 1988-1990; and worked with The AIDS Education Network and The South Carolina Christian Action Council's AIDS Taskforce.

Always an idealist and never contentious, he chose to resign his pulpit in Charleston after the congregation became polarized over the nature of his ministry. One group, led by the church's humanist / atheist faction, considered him too spiritual and God-centered; the other did not. Rather than seeing the congregation and the church's growth damaged by an outright schism, he negotiated with the vestry and arranged a peaceful end to his ten-year tenure. He announced his resignation on January 4, 1987. On April 18, 1987 he preached the Easter sermon at the new Unitarian congregation he had founded, All Souls, Waccamaw, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, about fifty miles north of Charleston.

Just after leaving the pulpit in Charleston, he made national headlines by calling attention to unprotected gay sex at South Carolina Interstate rest stops. There, gays and married men who were bisexual could make quick gay pickups for unprotected sex. This increased the likelihood that the men could transmit the HIV virus to their wives or other male partners. Exoo wanted to see condom dispensers installed at the rest stops. Instead of helping stop the transmission of AIDS, the South Carolina State Police started raiding the rest stops. This useless act simply forced the clandestine liaisons to move to other, less-visible locations. Exoo's fight to reduce AIDS transmission at the rest stops and in the dark, back rooms of a notorious Charleston pornography bookstore gained him national recognition through a feature story on Connie Chung's "Face to Face" television program. His ministry in West Virginia commenced in 1989 and continues there now.

In 1990, Exoo served as a delegate to The Presidential Advisory Commission on AIDS to the Medical Association of the People's Republic of China in Beijing, Wuhan, and Guangzhou. In the early 1990s, he was the chief organizer, director of development, and chaplain of the Burning Bush AIDS Hospice and Retreat Center at New Vrindaban, West Virginia.

"The Church Man" reviews
The Gabriel Award Putting his intellectual, theological, and musicological skills together, Exoo became America's first and, to date, only "church connoisseur," making unannounced visits to dozens of churches and synagogues in the greater Pittsburgh area, as well as in Milwaukee and Houston. Dubbed "The Church Man" in the early 1990s, he rated the congregations on the architecture of their buildings, the content of their sermons, the quality of their music, their social outreach, and their hospitality to strangers. The insightful, often funny, and occasionally, pointed reviews aired on National Public Radio's WQED-FM and brought him national and international attention. The reviews resulted in guest appearances on "Good Morning America," and profiles in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and on the BBC. It also earned him the "Gabriel" award from the National Association of Catholic Broadcasters and an Alumni Achievement Award from Emerson College, both in 1995.

Animal euthanasia activism
George Exoo at a Charleston dog pound with his poodle Always an animal lover, Exoo served as a member and vice president of the Charleston Spay Not Slay League from 1977 to 1992. In the 1980s, he led the fight in Charleston to end the barbaric practice used by local animal shelters for killing unwanted stray dogs and cats: throwing them alive into 55-gallon drums, closing the top, and then piping in scalding hot automobile exhaust gases until, in unspeakable agony, the animals finally died.
The Hemlock Society It was his first step in becoming a euthanasia activist. Soon thereafter, he became a life member of The Hemlock Society USA, formed in 1980 by Derek Humphry, one of the pioneers in the social justice movement for choice in dying. Its motto was "good life, good death." It believes that "voluntary euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and self-deliverance are all appropriate life endings depending on the individual medical and ethical circumstances."

Right-to-Die activism
One of Exoo's first encounters with self-deliverance came in 1995, when he and the wife of a close friend comforted the woman's husband as he took his own life. The man was in the final stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as "Lou Gehrig's disease." The disease kills the nerve cells that control the muscles, but the slow and certain death does not rob the victims of their mental facilities, making the progressive and irreversible losses tragically more horrifying to them every day. The man's wife bought him the best-selling book by Derek Humphry titled Final Exit. It is a how-to book on committing suicide by using medicines commonly found around the house or devices available legally at any big-box department store. With his wife and Exoo at his side, reminiscing about the good times, the man rapidly consumed a handful of crushed sedative pills mixed into applesauce, and washed the mixture down with a stiff cocktail, knowing that alcohol would accelerate the effect of the sleeping pills. A short time later, while Exoo was reading aloud The Lord's Prayer, he died.

The Compassionate Chaplaincy Foundation
In 1997, Josephine Koss and George Exoo, both Hemlock Society members living in the Pittsburgh area, registered "Hemlock of Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia" with the West Virginia Department of Tax and Revenue as a non-profit organization. Koss and four others were its initial officers; Exoo served as chaplain. In the following years, Exoo, often with the help of volunteers from this and other like-minded euthanasia groups, gave advice, counsel, and comforting spiritual presence to over one hundred people who wanted to die with dignity, but who were afraid to do so alone. Also in 1997, Exoo and Koss founded and registered The Compassionate Chaplaincy Foundation, now headquartered in Beckley, West Virginia. This organization is a state-licensed, federally-registered Section 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization which provides end-of-life counseling and compassionate terminal assistance to those whose lives have become insurmountably, unrelentingly, and endlessly painful and wish to end their lives at their own chosen times.

The Rosemary Toole Case
Exoo's work as a "final exit counselor," the name by which he and many of his colleagues world-wide have come to be known, is deliberately kept low-profile. He assists his clients quietly, in private, at their request. They generally are referred to him by other right-to-die organizations or individuals. It is believed that about one hundred to two hundred final exit counselors are quietly active in the United States and abroad.

The case that brought him into the international limelight was that of Rosemary Toole-Gilhooley, a 48-year-old resident of Dublin, Ireland. Ms. Toole (as she preferred to be known), had many reasons to want to die. Medically, she was suffering from Cushing's Syndrome, a disorder caused by an overproduction of cortisol in the brain. Cortisol is a hormone produced principally in response to physical or psychological stress and is secreted by the adrenal glands. The symptoms of Cushing's Syndrome usually include fatigue, weakness, depression, mood swings, increased thirst and urination, and lack of menstrual periods in women. She had sought medical help for years for her ailments, but none of the suggested treatments worked. Irish prosecutors claimed that they had no evidence of Toole suffering from this disorder. The reason is quite simple: they never asked about it.

In addition, she had developed a deep depression, caused by her illness; by her abandonment by both parents as a very young child, and by the failure of her marriage, which lasted only six months, according to her father. By the time she was referred to Exoo by a member of a Canadian right-to-die group, she had already attempted to commit suicide once before, after suffering a nervous breakdown in her thirties. According to her father, Owen Toole, her psychiatric problems also led to the failure of her second marriage, to James Gilhooley, from whom she separated in 1992. Prior to her death, Ms. Toole had spent the previous five years talking about little else other than suicide, according to her father, when he was interviewed on a Dublin radio program shortly after her death. She had spent hundreds of hours on the telephone and the Internet, talking to people about how to kill herself, he said. Even the head of the conservative right-to-die organization in Scotland could not talk her out of it. One way or another, Rosemary Toole was absolutely determined to end her own life.

After convincing Exoo and the expert he consulted that she was both of sound mind and absolutely committed to self-deliverance, Exoo and his close friend, Thomas McGurrin, agreed to fly to Dublin. There they would make a final assessment of her case, assure that she had assembled the needed supplies, and provide a compassionate presence and pray with her as she made her transition to the afterlife.

Despite the lurid claims of British and Irish tabloids, Exoo and McGurrin were not paid a fee to help Rosemary Toole commit suicide. The two received a total of US $2,500 (not $6,000 or $7,000, as was erroneously reported by Irish sources), which was to reimburse them for the actual cost of two round-trip economy-class flights between Washington, DC and Dublin, plus their meals and a car rental while in Ireland. When they arrived in Dublin, they found that Toole had assembled enough supplies to kill herself several times over. These included a large quantity of powerful prescription sleeping pills, which, when pulverized and mixed into a glass of vodka, would quickly render her unconscious. Her final act, as she felt sleep overtaking her, would be to pull over her head a specially made plastic "exit bag," which was connected to a tank of helium -- the same type of gas tank used to fill party balloons. Within just a few breaths, the tasteless and odorless gas would render her completely unconscious, and death would follow quickly and without pain within a few minutes.

On Friday night, January 25, 2002, Rosemary Toole took a shower, donned her favorite evening dress, and went to the bedroom of a Dublin apartment she had rented for her final exit. She had purchased four large helium tanks, each twice the size of those that normally come packaged in a helium party balloon kit -- enough gas to kill four people. Clearly, Toole did not want the lack of anything to jeopardize her death. She took a large gulp of the vodka and pills, leaving some residue in the glass to let the police, who would eventually find her, know that the suicide was deliberate. She had also left a suicide note at her home, for her father to find the next day.

As Exoo and McGurrin prayed with her, Toole started to slip into unconsciousness from the barbiturate cocktail overdose. Her final act was to turn on the flow of helium into the plastic bag and pull the bag over her head. Her breathing quickly slowed, and after a few minutes, it stopped. She died peacefully and without pain. After waiting an additional half hour to ensure that she had indeed passed over, Exoo and McGurrin left the building.

When her father, Owen Toole, found the suicide note she had left for him at his home the previous day, he notified the police. They found her body in the rented apartment, and went to her father's house and searched her home computer. There they found numerous emails between Toole, Exoo and numerous right-to-die groups worldwide. The most critical details were disclosed or leaked to the Irish and British press, who turned Toole's suicide into a media frenzy. Within days, the Irish and British tabloids were filled with guesses and inaccurate, often deliberately misleading information. In Ireland, which is predominantly Catholic, assisted suicide is mortal sin under the canons of the Roman Catholic Church and a crime under Irish civil law. Due in part to the hysteria generated by the tabloid press, the Irish police demanded that Exoo and McGurrin be extradited to Ireland to stand trial for murder. In 2002, formal requests were made to the U.S. State Department. The Irish police sent detectives to the U.S. in an attempt to interrogate Exoo and McGurrin, but the two Americans denied any impropriety or wrongdoing and declined to comment.

Exoo's condition and death threats in the Southern Regional Jail
On the morning of June 25, 2007, federal agents arrested Exoo and took him to the Southern Regional Jail, in Beaver, West Virginia to await an extradition hearing. In the first few days of July, Exoo wrote from his cell:

Save for a few exceptions, the guards show me no civility, no matter much I offer courtesy to them; and the inmates, largely men aged 18-22, made me their scapegoat. Sexual threats increased, leading up to my being pummeled with a storm of paperback novels. One struck me in the left eye, and had it not been for my glasses I would now surely be blind in that eye. One also threatened [me with] shanking [murder using an inmate-fashioned knife]. They seek to level physical and sexual abuse upon anyone they view as weak. Alas, the guards are no less abusive - at least for the most part.

I successfully appealed to be put into a protective custody cell. It's the place they send those who have become prey and those accused of abusing children. I fit into the former category. My two cellmates consist of a young man, 20, and now also another man, accused of molesting a three-year-old daughter. So now I am in lockdown 22 hours per day. I share a space 10 ft by 14 with them. At least there is a toilet (lidless) and a sink, a shower down the hall, and a semblance of air conditioning. The one hour a day allotted for [my] movement outside the cell may only be used for showers, exercise, use of the telephone, and the prison law library.

August 17, 2007: First Extradition Hearing, Beckley, West Virginia
After a lengthy presentation by lawyers prosecuting and defending Exoo, U.S. District Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort told all parties that it would take "at least two weeks" to review the complicated points of international law, which they raised in oral arguments, before deciding whether Exoo will be extradited to Ireland. Whatever he decides will set a precedent in U.S. extradition law. For that reason, the judge is paying extreme attention to every facet of this complicated case.

Exoo, his hair neatly combed, and clothed in a prison-issued orange jump suit with one leg torn open, and wearing rubber flip-flops and leg chains, was led into court by two U.S. marshalls. As he entered, he smiled warmly and with tears in his eyes in gratitude for the support of the eighteen friends, colleagues, and fellow ministers who filled the pews of the small courtroom. No Irish government officials were present. The one freelance Irish reporter hired by RTÉ (Radio Telefís Éiran) attended, but left half-way through the hearing, before either attorney had made their closing summations and before Judge VanDervort made his determination to postpone a ruling.

Defense attorney, Edward H. Wise Exoo's attorney, Edward H. Weis, pointed out that Exoo did not furnish any of the information or supplies to Ms. Toole, who had tried to commit suicide before and failed. She contacted Exoo and paid his way to Dublin in order to provide a compassionate presence and to pray with her as she took her life. Since all actions by Ms. Toole were by her own hand, not his, Wise argued, Exoo in no way "assisted" in her suicide.

Exoo previously had noted that every year, many hundreds of ministers routinely provide compassionate spiritual presence and pray with dying people who have ordered that their life support be discontinued. "If comforting and praying with a dying person is either a sin or a crime, then most of the ministers, priests, and rabbis in America, Ireland, and the rest of the world must be sinners, criminals, or both," Exoo said.

In 2004, the Irish government requested that the U.S. extradite Exoo for having allegedly violated Ireland's suicide law, which identifies assisting a suicide a felony, punishable by up to fourteen years in jail. In order to obtain an extradition, the US-Irish extradition treaty states that the law allegedly violated in Ireland must also be a felony in the United States. U.S. federal law does not define suicide or assisting a suicide as a crime, nor does the State of West Virginia, where Exoo resides. Philip H. Wright, the prosecuting attorney argued for the Republic of Ireland that because neither the United States nor West Virginia defines assisted suicide as a crime, then the determination must be made whether "a preponderance of states" -- at least 26 out of 50 -- defined it as a crime. This means that Exoo's extradition hung on the complicated interpretation of all suicide and assisted suicide laws in each of the fifty states.

August 23, 2007: Exoo moved back to Charleston, West Virginia jail
On Thursday, August 23, 2007, at 3:30 p.m., The Reverend Mr. Exoo was transported by federal marshals from the Southeastern Regional Jail, Beaver, West Virginia, to the South Central Regional Jail in Charleston, West Virginia, about a one-hour drive away from his home in Beckley. Upon arrival, Exoo was put into a holding cell where he slept on the concrete floor until transferred to another cell at 1:30 a.m., ten hours later.

Exoo was stripped of all possessions, including personal and professional correspondence, postage stamps, writing instruments, and books when he was transferred to the new jail in Charleston, WV. This has happened every time he has been transferred from jail to jail. In his new jail, he had only forty minutes a day for exercise, use of a telephone (to make collect calls only), or use the prison law library. On the other hand, he was at least separated from the particularly vicious corrections officers at the Beaver, WV jail. There, despite his endless courtesy and exemplary personal behavior, the guards harassed and punished him at every opportunity. He was kept in jail until the final ruling on October 26, 2007.

Irish Times article, "Angel of death" or victim of a witch-hunt?" on September 8, 2007, surveys Exoo's U.S. supporters.

Among the dozens of churches and prayer halls in Beckley, in the heart of the Appalachian coal- mining region of West Virginia, the brown-brick home of the [New River: RNC] Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship usually attracts little attention. These are turbulent days for the tiny congregation, however, as its former minister, George Exoo, waits in jail to hear if he will be extradited to Ireland for allegedly aiding and abetting the suicide of Rosemary Toole in January 2002. If convicted, the 65-year-old minister could face up to 14 years in prison.

"He is still a member here and when he is no longer in the situation he is in right now, he will be more than welcome here as a member. There are several of us here who care about George and we all wish him well," says Kelly Kaufman, who succeeded Exoo as minister in 2005. Despite her good wishes, Kaufman is eager to distance the congregation from Exoo's Compassionate Chaplaincy Foundation, through which he claims to have ministered to more than 100 people as they ended their own lives. "George is a part of our community," she says. "But we are not part of his cause."

By the time Exoo and McGurrin arrived, Toole had imported from Canada an "exit bag" - a plastic bag to be placed over the head and filled with helium. In interviews he gave in the days after her death, Exoo said that Toole had far more helium and a much greater quantity of drugs than she needed to kill herself. "I gave her instructions, but that's what we do. And provided spiritual support for her," he told a West Virginia newspaper. Toole paid Exoo and McGurrin $2,500 (€ 1,815) to cover their travel expenses and she left five per cent of her estate to the Compassionate Chaplaincy Foundation, although Exoo said he didn't know about the bequest in advance and he has never claimed it.

The Irish authorities claim that, despite his insistence that he offered no more than comfort and spiritual support to Toole, Exoo actually helped her to take her own life. They point to his account of her smoking a cigarette after she had taken a cocktail of sedatives and vodka but before she pulled the helium bag down over her face. "The last thing she did before she pulled down the bag was take one last toke on the cigarette. I said: 'Okay, Rosemary, time to put down the cigarette, if you don't mind,' " he told the Charleston Gazette newspaper. In an interview with Ireland on Sunday, Exoo went further: "I think just before the bag came down I was pulling the cigarette away from her mouth, as I recall it. 'It's time to stop smoking, Rosemary, we've done enough'" he said.

Lawyers have advised Exoo, who has been in jail since his arrest in June, not to speak to the media now, and South Carolina historian Richard Côté, who acts as Exoo's press representative, maintains that Irish media coverage has been overwhelmingly hostile, homophobic, and riddled with inaccuracies. "From a point of journalistic ethics, collectively, reading the stories by the Irish press makes me want to vomit," he says. "The Irish press has already convicted George Exoo of the crime he is alleged to have committed and is simply looking around for the right tree to hang him from."

Côté, who has known Exoo for almost 30 years, believes that his work as a "final exit counsellor" is entirely consistent with a lifetime spent helping others. "He provides compassionate care and pastoral counselling for people who are either terminally ill or in pain situations which are unbearable, irreversible and untreatable and for whom life has lost all meaning," Côté says.

In 1977, four years after being ordained, Exoo took charge of a congregation in Charleston, South Carolina. While there, Exoo launched a campaign to improve AIDS education and awareness, calling for condom dispensers to be installed at highway rest stops where men met one another for sex. The authorities ignored his call and clamped down on the gay cruising areas instead.

It was just before he moved to Beckley in 1996 that Exoo started his Compassionate Chaplaincy Foundation, inspired by the experience of comforting a friend with Lou Gehrig's disease as the man ended his life with an overdose of sedatives. "When we hired George, we knew about his compassionate chaplaincy. He told us about that," says Beverly Kinraide, his predecessor as minister in Beckley. Kinraide says that, far from being the "angel of death" portrayed in some media reports, Exoo has spent much of his time and a lot of his own money helping people to stay alive. "He has given cars away to people so that they can get work and so that they can get to work, so that they could keep a job. He's done this on at least three occasions that I know of. He has taken people into his house, he has allowed them to live with him for days and weeks and months, and in some cases he has paid for people to be in apartments, he has paid for their living expenses so that they can get through a hard time. They have called saying: 'I want you to be with me. I'm going to do this. I've got to do this, but I need you.' But he's gone and persuaded them not to do it. He has determined that, in fact, their problem is something that can be solved with a little bit of time, a little bit of help." Kinraide, who fears that Exoo would not survive a long prison sentence, says he had attempted to establish a board to oversee his work as a "final exit counsellor" but nobody was willing to serve on it.

Côté favours legal assisted suicide within a regulatory framework, but he believes that, in the absence of such regulation, people like Exoo will still be needed. "To die alone is a terrible thing and to have someone there to pray with you, to talk to you as you are making the transition from here to the other side, there is nothing in the world that can replace that," he says. "I was talking to a woman today who, probably 72 hours from now, will be on the other side. I've been talking to her for months. "This woman has no one who is willing to be with her at the time of her death. She has gone through insufferable pain for 17 years and has no George Exoo to be at her side - and she will probably end up taking her own life alone in her car in the middle of nowhere someplace. That's no way to go. I'd go for an unregulated George Exoo over that any time."

© 2007 The Irish Times.

The Rumor Mill
Deliberate character assassination is an ugly thing. As one U.S. government official said after being fully cleared of charges that accused him of illegal acts, "Where do I go to get my reputation back?" The Reverend George Exoo now faces the same dilemma. Since the suicide death of Rosemary Toole in 2002, a combination of sensation-seeking Irish and English tabloids; along with numerous newspapers, magazines, and online websites; have concocted, expressed, or republished without any research or verification a large number of falsehoods about Exoo. The following are some of the most extreme examples that have so far come to light, followed in each case by the true facts of the matter.

  • Rumor: Exoo and his colleague, Thomas McGurrin, helped Rosemary Toole of Dublin take her own life in 2002.
  • Fact: Ms. Toole took her own life, by her own hand, with no physical intervention by Exoo or McGurrin. Ms. Toole, who had attempted suicide once before, "had spoken about suicide every day for the past five years," said her father, Owen Toole, just after her death. She had spent many months researching how to take her own life. She did so by making numerous telephone calls to euthanasia groups all over the world, communicating with them via hundreds of emails, and purchasing the state-of-the-art book on suicide, Final Exit, by Derek Humphry. After months of intensive research, Ms. Toole purchased tanks of helium gas in Ireland, ordered a "final exit bag" to admnister the gas from a Canadian right-to-die organization, and amassed a large quantity of barbiturate sleeping pills in Ireland to use in her suicide. Exoo and McGurrin listened to her plans, verified her wish to carry them out, and then prayed with her and provided a compassionate presence as she took the pills, turned on the helium supply, and pulled the mask over her head, all with her own hands.

  • Rumor: Exoo was paid a fee by Rosemary Toole to help her take her life. Irish, British, and American broadcast and print media made the following baseless, unresearched claims, none of which are either factual or supported by evidence:
    • An unidenitified reporter from The Belfast (Northern Ireland) Telegraph, quoting The Irish Times (who denied having made the statement), stated on February 4, 2002 that "detectives found evidence that she hired the pair to take her own life for a fee of about £4,000." Read the Belfast Telegraph story here.
    • On December 18, 2005, more than three years after Toole's death, George Clogg, of The (London) Sunday Miror was still erroneously claiming the alleged fee was £7,000 (approximately $9,800 in 2002). Read the Sunday Miror story here.
    • On July 18, 2007, more than five years after Toole's death, Matthew Hill, reporter for the The Beckley, West Virginia Register Herald wrote that "Investigators believe that Exoo was paid $6,000 to participate in the woman's death." This repeated the same false and undocumented facts that newspaper published on June 27, June 29, September 8, and October 26, 2007. Read the June 29, 2007 Register-Herald story here.
    • On September 11, 2007, also more than five years after Toole's death, Radio Telefís Éireann (RTÉ), which is owned and operated by the Irish government, stated in a television report that "Exoo and his partner admitted that they were paid $7,000." Neither Exoo nor McGurrin ever stated any such thing. Read the RTÉ story here.
  • Fact: Neither Exoo nor McGurrin received any money whatsoever for any services rendered to Toole, only reimbursement for their actual expenses. Exoo was reimbursed a total of US $2,500 for the out-of-pocket costs he and his colleague, McGurrin, incurred for the purchase of two economy-class, round-trip airline tickets between the United States and Ireland; the cost of their hotel lodging; and the cost of a rental car while providing prayer and compassionate presence in Dublin when Ms. Toole committed suicide. They paid all their own expenses while traveling elsewhere in Europe. The $2,5000 sum for expense reimbursement was accurately stated numerous times in the offficial Irish legal records provided to the U.S. Department of State. All other sums reported by newspapers were either sloppy guesses, unconfirmed rumors, or outright fabrications.

  • Rumor: Exoo and McGurrin fled Ireland for The Dominican Republic in Central America after the suicide to avoid arrest.
  • Fact: This nonsense was fabricated and published in 2002 by an Irish tabloid. Exoo was informed of this allegation by an Irish journalist who met him at his home when he returned from Ireland. Exoo and McGurrin had planned and budgeted their own funds for a vacation in Ireland, Holland, and Germany prior to Ms. Toole contacting them. After her suicide in Dublin, they proceeded with their planned vacation and flew, as scheduled and booked in advance, on regular commercial flights within Europe and never to Central America. Irish and British authorities had all this information at their fingertips and could have checked their advance airline reservations at any time to know exactly where and when they would be traveling.

  • Rumor: The Reverend Exoo is a "former minister."
  • Fact: After graduating with a Bachelor of Sacred Theology (S.T.B.) degree from Harvard Divinity School, one of the world's most highly-regarded and intellectually demanding religious educational institutions, Exoo was ordained a minister by Boston's First Church (Unitarian-Universalist) on January 4, 1974. His ordination is valid for life, and has never been challenged or revoked. Until his arrest, he was ministering to the Greenbriar Spiritual Community in Lewisburg, West Virginia, and looks forward to resuming his work with that congregation upon his release. Exoo, known for his extraordinary writings and sermons, is welcome to accept a call from any Unitarian or Universalist church or congregation worldwide -- or any other church of any other denomination, for that matter -- which chooses to call him. He spent his time in jail practicing the calling of a minister: caring for the spiritual and emotional needs of his fellow prisoners. He taught them peaceful conflict resolution techniques, held Bible discussions, and lead prayer and meditation sessions.

Credits and permissions

  • The image of hands with a rose is copyright © 2007 by Jud Evans, from and is used with permission.
  • George Exoo portrait, top of page, right: courtesy of John Clark, Medical University of South Carolina.
  • George Exoo small portrait, above "Biography" link and interior ceiling, Unitarian Church of Charleston: by the late Kirk Prouty, Charleston, South Carolina.
  • The quotation from Derek Humphry's Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying (New York: Dell Publishing, 2002, 3rd edition, revised, with supplement), is used with permision of the author.